When I’m not traveling, I have a tendency to look at photographs of the good ol’ times of when I was traveling. And when least expected, a teeny tiny little insect creeps up on me – the travel bug – and bites right where it really smarts. Ow. That hurt, you bastard. Once I recover from the sting, there’s only one thing to do next. Commence travel.
For now, I’m traveling back a few summers – to the summer I spent roaming the Italian countryside eating and drinking just about everything that was within sight reach and budget. This particular summer, I spent a few days in Greve – a charming little town in the central Italian region of Tuscany. It was a balmy breezy morning when my travel buddy Con and I decided to rent a vespa, and ride through the Italian countryside. It only came with one helmet though, but in standard Indian fashion I thought it unnecessary to comply with such silly safety regulations and went helmet-less. This would lead to my first encounter with the Italian polizei – but that’s another story altogether. This story, is about the time we visited the vineyard where the Mona Lisa herself was born – Vignamaggio.
Situated in the centre of the Chianto Classico wine producing district in Chianti, Vignamaggio is an awe inspiringly charming little vineyard, with an equally beautiful villa that dates back to the 14th century. As the story goes, the Mona Lisa was born here in 1479, the daughter of Anton Maria Gherardini, before she moved to Florence. The Gherardini were most likely of Etruscan or Roman origin, and were a noble family in Tuscany.
Strapped onto our cute little vespa, Con and I zoomed through rolling hills, family run vineyards, and a countryside that looked like one giant 3d postcard – each vista more beautiful than the last. The journey to Vignamaggio was an uphill climb – the vineyards are at an altitude of between 330 m and 400 m a.s.l. By the time we arrived at the vineyard, the Italian summer sun was high in the sky, resembling a plump peach floating in a bright blue Mediterranean sea. Beneath its sultry heat, I could feel myself getting red as a sun dried tomato.
We began by strolling around the villa’s gardens, which were lined with hundred year old cypress trees and holm-oak trees, juniper hedges a plenty, and bright splashes of pink rose. Just beyond the gardens were the olive groves. What people tend to forget is that in addition to being a leading wine producer, Italy is also one of the world’s leading producers of olives and olive oil, and Italians are equally passionate about their little round (delicious) sources of pride. The olives are picked by hand in the month of November, but we were only in July – so I resisted the cheeky urge to grab a few and pop them into my mouth (and pocket).
We continued our summer stroll down to the vineyards. The main wine variety on the estate is Sangiovese – which literally translated means ‘Blood of Jove’, or Jupiter – the Roman God of sky and thunder. Since we were in the month of July, the fruit clusters had started to grow bigger and were just about touching each other – a process known as the ‘closing’ of the clusters. The vineyards looked almost surreal in their splendour, making it impossible to resist a good ol’ fashioned frolic.
We wandered down to the cellars next, where the wines are aged in oak barrels and barriques. The cellars date back to the fifteenth century, and it’s here where all the magic happens. The Vin Santo, as we were about to taste, is an Italian dessert wine traditional to the Chianti region. To produce this wine, the grapes are first dried for three months in a well ventilated room at the top of the villa, a process which allows the sugars in the grape to be more concentrated. They are then pressed, lightly separated, and the must (the freshly pressed juice containing the skins, seeds, and stems of the fruit – though in this wine’s case, no skins) is collected, and placed in oak barrels to ferment. Once fermentation is complete, the barrels are sealed and left for four years, after which the wine is bottled and ready for me to drink.
In fact, all this talk of wine was getting us pretty thirsty. It wasn’t long however before we tasted, once again, the bottled fruit of other people’s labour – this time from a bottle of Chianti Classico, a premium Chianti wine from the Chianti Classico subregion. The wine was moderately robust but still flowery and tart, with fruity tones that came to life when offset by the saltiness of the salami, prosciutto, and cheese presented on our plates. We sat outside, basking in the sunshine and the satisfaction of nothing more (and nothing less) than good food, good wine, and good company.